Sin on the ‘Net

Just the other day, I complained about the fact that New York Federal district court overseeing the Google Books settlement apparently doesn’t plan to webcast the final public hearing that will take place on February 18 in this hugely important case about the future of digital books and copyright. Now I discover that the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals (which covers Florida, Georgia & Alabama) has issued a decision with even more far-reaching applications—allowing prosecutions for online obscenity distribution according to local “community standards” wherever a user might have downloaded the material—without even publishing the landmark decision!

Adam discussed this obscenity/localism issue in detail back in 2004. Eugene Volokh explains the substance of this decision:

United States v. Little concludes that Internet obscenity distribution prosecutions may rely on the community standard of the place in which the material was distributed — which means the government can try to download the material in the most restrictive community, and prosecute the distributor there.

If left to stand, this decision could essentially amount to a ban on hardcore pornography in the U.S.—with the definition of “obscenity” being left to local puritanical politicians in the country’s most socially traditionalist backwaters, subject only to some general restraint by the courts as to just how far the definition of “obscenity” can be pushed. Volokh continues: Continue reading →

If this robotic girlfriend—unveiled last weekend at the AVN Adult Entertainment Expo and costing $7-9k—actually goes mainstream, I’ll bet it’s only a matter of time before we see some state lawmaker somewhere propose to ban the toys. The FCC well, no doubt, follow suit, by demanding the incorporation of parental control tools into the devices so Junior doesn’t have his way with Ms. Roxxxy (or her soon-to-be-released male counterpart, Rocky) while Mom and Dad are out at NASCAR the opera.

Laugh if you will, but if Moore’s Law holds true, such robots will become smarter, cheaper, and probably sexier as microchips continue to plummet in price and meaningful artificial intelligence becomes marketplace reality.  Move over, Roomba, Roxxxy has arrived—and she ain’t no Rosie the Robot Maid from The Jetsons! Telegraph reports that there’s a whole book about this:

In a 2007 book, “Love and Sex with Robots,” British chess player and artificial intelligence expert David Levy argues that robots will become significant sexual partners for humans, answering needs that other people are unable or unwilling to satisfy.

But the most interesting part of the telegraph article is creator Douglas Hines’s motivation:

Inspiration for the sex robot sprang from the September 11, 2001 attacks, he said, where a friend died and he vowed to store his personality forever.

This sounds an awful lot like the plot of Caprica, the new SyFi television series, a prequel set 58 years before the beginning of Battlestar Galactica, the cult phenomenon that even seduced hardened TV-refusenik like me. Continue reading →

This morning the Federal Trade Commission released its report on kids and virtual worlds.  You can read the report, entitled Virtual Worlds and Kids: Mapping the Risks, here.  (I’ve posted similar thoughts over at Terra Nova, apologies for the cross-post).

What initially strikes me about the report is the distance between how the report’s being billed and what it actually says.  The billing of the report—and thus the likely media tagline—is that the “FTC Report Finds Sexually and Violently Explicit Content in Online Virtual Worlds Accessed by Minors.”  But a more accurate statement would be “FTC Report Finds Surprisingly Little Sexually and Violently Explicit Content in Online Virtual Worlds Accessed by Minors, Especially Compared to What Minors Can Find on the Internet.”

The Commission found at least one (really? that’s all?) instance of explicitly violent OR sexual content in a significant percentage of the virtual worlds it examined—and that includes user chat, but in general it didn’t find many such instances per world.  So to be counted in the study as a virtual world that contains explicit violent or sexual content, the researchers just had to find one instance of chat in which someone said something violent or sexually oriented (which of course includes the scatalogical as well as the sexual).  The point is, it appears to me that they went looking for anything and didn’t find much.  Far from being seen as an indictment of virtual worlds as dangerous for kids, this seems to me to be quite positive for virtual worlds, especially as compared to the internet at large.  I’m relying on the following language from the report:

Despite this seemingly high statistic [the Commission found at least one instance of sexually or violently explicit content in 19 out of 27 worlds], the Commission found very little explicit content in most of the virtual worlds surveyed, when viewed by the actual incidence of such content.

And:

Of [the 14 virtual worlds open to children under 13], the Commission found at least one instance of explicit content on seven of them.  Significantly, however, with the exception of one world, Bots, all of the explicit content observed in the child-oriented worlds occurred when the Commission’s researchers visited those worlds as teen or adult registrants, not when visiting the worlds as children under age 13.

I think the study said some interesting things, and there is some strong analysis, but the reception the report will get is, I bet, far removed from what the report actually says.

The U.S. Treasury and the Federal Reserve have pushed back the deadline for banking industry compliance with regulations pursuant to the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act of 2006 (UIGEA). UIGEA, the controversial tack-on to the Bush administration’s SAFE Port Act aimed at curtailing on-line gambling by making it illegal for U.S banks and financial institutions to participate in funds transactions between U.S. citizens and corporations that operate online casinos, effectively banning Internet gambling.

In a joint statement, the Treasury and the Fed delayed the compliance date, which had been set for today (December 1) to June 1, 2010, the Gambling Today blog reports. The decision also comes just days before Thursday’s scheduled hearing in the House Financial Services Committee on H.R. 2267, a bill introduced by Rep. Barney Frank (D-MA), which would overturn UIGEA and create a full licensing and regulatory framework for the Internet gambling industry in the United States.

As Financial Services Committee chairman, Frank has been a vocal opponent of UIGEA and has been working for its repeal over the past two years. In authorizing the delay, the two agencies said that financial institutions were not prepared with the mechanisms they needed to block unlawful Internet gambling transactions, but they also noted that the rules did not provide a clear definition of unlawful Internet gambling. This last observation could be significant as it acknowledges one of the bill’s principal vulnerabilities—it broadly defines Internet gambling as games of chance. Opposition groups, notably the Poker Players Alliance, have repeatedly argued (correctly IMHO) that certain online casino games, especially poker, are games of skill.

Online gambling blogs generally greeted the delay positively and hope it is another step in the direction of restoring the freedom to gamble online.

As the Gambling Today blog notes:

The postponement was greatly appreciated by the supporters of online gambling. House Financial Services Committee chairman Barney Frank has two of his sponsored bills coming up for hearing on December 3. Frank said, “This will give us a chance to act in an unhurried manner on my legislation to undo this regulatory excess by the Bush administration and to undo this ill-advised law.”

Adam has done yeoman’s work for years pointing out, and arguing against, the phenomenon of techno-panic as it relates to children. That’s not the only area in which techno-panic can tighten its grip on the neck of common sense and the constitution, of course.

But here’s a delight I ran across this morning: the Los Angeles Times arguing against techno-panic despite the use of Web sites to research and case potential burglary victims (by the “bling ring,” soon to be the subject of a major motion picture).

The Times editorializes:

[T]hieves [did not] have to wait for the invention of Google maps to reconnoiter neighborhoods in search of easily accessible homes. That’s worth remembering if, as we fear, some legislator decides that a law should be passed to prevent Internet surfers from looking at houses they easily could scope out from the sidewalk. . . . . A law against photographing a home or what occurs outside it in plain sight — or disseminating the images to others — would be overreaching, not to mention unconstitutional.

What a delight—a major newspaper arguing to keep a hot issue in perspective and citing the constitution as a limit on government power! Thank you, L.A. Times.

Last year, my PFF colleague Adam Thierer asked whether State AGs + NCMEC = The Net’s New Regulators? Adam noted that NCMEC, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, a private non-profit organization, was playing a law enforcement role in regulating child pornography—but without any clear mechanisms for ensuring its accountability and effectiveness. Adam’s point wasn’t just that transparency is a good thing, but that when it comes to a cause as important as protecting children from exploitation, it’s vital to ensuring that we’re that we’re actually doing a good job at it!

Yesterday, Emmanuel Lazaridis commented on that post:

Given the increasing regulatory and investigative powers of the NCMEC, it is no longer clear whether or not the [Freedom of Information Act] applies to NCMEC records. We are about to find out. I am right now bringing a case against the NCMEC in federal court for access to records under the FOIA and, failing that, for discovery under 28 U.S.C. § 1782(a).

Mr. Lazaridis’s complaint in the D.C. District Court claims that Lazaridis (a Greek national) has been unfairly deemed a fugitive from U.S. justice for having taken his daughter to Greece over the objections of the girl’s American mother, Lazaridis’s ex-wife. NCMEC got involved by placing the girl on their MissingKids.com registry of abducted children. Lazaridis wants the court to recognize his custody, deem him not to be a fugitive, and to order NCMEC to turn over all their records on the girl.

This is, of course, just one side of the story (and such cases are usually so complicated as to be indecipherable to outsiders). But even if Lazaridis’s case were wholly without merit, his basic argument would be a sound one: Why shouldn’t NCMEC, in exercising any of its essentially governmental functions, be subject to the same accountability requirements through FOIA as the FBI would be?

When the issue is the Lazaridis family’s trans-Atlantic custody battle, it may seem easy to ignore this question. But when NCMEC is essentially making policy regarding filtering Internet content, blacklisting websites, turning over user logs to law enforcement, or “cleaning up” Craigslist, the question of NCMEC’s accountability under FOIA cannot be avoided as a critical decision about the future of Internet governance. Continue reading →

craigslist has filed a complaint against South Carolina Attorney General Henry McMaster, seeking to enjoin him from prosecuting the site for displaying the solicitations to prostitution that sometimes appear there. The complaint cites section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, the First Amendment, and a few other laws that craigslist believes protect it from liability.

The complaint makes a pretty good case that craigslist has taken reasonable steps, working with law enforcement, to keep prostitution off the site. With that it has done its part. If prosecutors want to go after prostitution, they can use craigslist to do so. They should not attack the messenger if consenting adults are trying to exchange money for sexual services in their local areas.

CNN reports:

An Illinois sheriff filed a federal lawsuit Thursday against the owners of craigslist, accusing the popular national classified-ad Web site of knowingly promoting prostitution.

The sheriff is upset that the site maintains a bulletin board system which is very lightly policed by its creators. It is little more than a forum for people to place their own advertisements. Thus, principles of caveat emptor abound, as anyone who has tried to find an apartment through the service knows.

Without craigslist, back to street walking

More importantly, Craig’s List is perhaps the best example of a site that should be immune from prosecution for the actions of its users under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. It exercises little control over what its users do, and that’s what makes the service both valuable and free. If the company had to hire thousands more people to examine every post that comes before it, its service would become more like Apple’s iPhone/iPod Touch App Store.

Section 230 allows websites like Craig’s List, Google, YouTube, Blogger, and pretty much every other user-driven Web 2.0 site the security to know they can operate free of lawsuits about what someone else, their users, did. Adam Thierer goes so far as to argue that it makes possible a real world analog for Nozick’s meta-utopia. Moreover, it is philosophically required by the tenet of justice known as the “principle of intervening action.”

Yet attorneys general and other politicians have been seizing on high-profile internet-related misfortunes like the MySpace suicide to push against Section 230′s safe harbor promise. Adam Thierer recently gave an excellent summary of where the section may be heading in the US. Other countries are even worse.

Perhaps even more dangerous than overt legal erosion of Section 230 through bad precedents (there are still some judicial defenders of the section out there, after all) is its covert destruction through coerced “agreements” forced upon ISPs and websites by AGs. They started popping up all over the place this summer and there is no end in sight. Indeed, CNN pointed out:

Craigslist entered into an agreement with 43 states’ attorneys general in November to enact measures that impose restrictions on its Erotic Services section. The agreement called for the Web site to implement a phone verification system for listings that required ad posters to provide a real telephone number that would be called before the ad went public.

Let’s hope the new administration stops the trend and puts life back into Section 230.

The Supreme Court building (thank Chief Justice Taft!)During my summer internship at CEI, a couple of us interns discussed the book Cato’s Robert Levy published last May, The Dirty Dozen: How Twelve Supreme Court Cases Radically Expanded Government and Eroded Freedom. We looked at Levy’s list of the worst decisions and sent each other lists of our own. Now that I’m taking ConLaw, I feel as though the time has come to post my lists of the twelve worst and the twelve best Supreme Court decisions of all time. It is by no means an exhaustive list. My inclusion of different cases than Levy does not indicate that I disagree with his assessment that those decisions are terrible – just maybe not as bad as the ones I select.

The Dirty DozenThe Worst:

  1. The Slaughter-House Cases (1873). The very worst decision ever made by the US Supreme Court. Eviscerated the 14th Amendment only five years after its adoption. It is best known for reading the Privileges or Immunities Clause, which was supposed to be (and could have been) a vehicle for both incorporation and unenumerated rights, out of the Constitution. But it also wrote out the Due Process Clause and the Equal Protection Clause, though those two clauses eventually crawled back into existence, to a degree.
  2. Katzenbach v. McClung (1964). It was tough to decide which of the various cases reading the Commerce Clause expansively enough to permit Congress to pass any law it desires, thus destroying the basis of the federal government as one of defined and limited powers to include. But McClung seems to be the most expansive in both its result and its holding.

Continue reading →

At Stanford Law School, I am a member of the Stanford Law and Technology Association and the Center for Internet and Society. I write for CIS’s publication, Packets. I just published a piece summarizing the recent Third Circuit case once again holding the Child Online Protection Act unconstitutional. When the decision was released back in July, Adam Thierer wrote a wonderful post here on it. Adam’s and my pieces are complementary. Though Adam gave a nice assessment of COPA’s future, my summary goes into a bit greater detail on the court’s legal reasoning. If you’re interested in the law or in the constitutional principles involved, you may want to check out this interview with my brother, who was a counsel on the case.